books

Now Available -- Think Like a Commoner

I'm thrilled to announce the publication of my new book, Think Like a Commoner:  A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers). Unlike so many of my previous books on the commons – which explored some specific aspect of the commons (culture, copyright, ecological commons) or were aimed at academic readers – Think Like a Commoner is a general overview of the commons written for the general reader. 

It’s my attempt to reach the not-necessarily-political layperson to introduce the commons paradigm in an accessible, non-academic way, but without dumbing things down.  The book provides a succinct overview of the great diversity of commons in the world and the many pernicious enclosures now being fought.  It describes the logic, worldview and ethics of the commons, and the burgeoning international movement of commoners, especially in Europe and the global South. 

I’ve created a special website for the book – www.Think LikeACommoner.com – for those who want to keep track of the reviews and my upcoming appearances.  I’ve also included an extensive set of citations, keyed to page numbers in the book, which amount to footnotes and recommendations for further reading.  I didn’t want to burden a book intended for general readers with all the scholarly hoohah of notes, but of course some people do want to inquire further into certain aspects of the commons. Hence the web-based notes.

At the end of the book, I include a number of short references:  the statement, "The Commons, Short and Sweet"; Silke Helfrich’s chart, “The Logic of the Commons and the Market”; a select bibliography of further readings on the commons; and a listing of leading websites on the commons.

I’m grateful for the glowing endorsements that the book has received from Bill McKibben, Ralph Nader, Maude Barlow, David Korten, Michel Bauwens and Peter Barnes.  You can read those at the book website.

If you'd prefer to read the book in French or Polish, there are translations already available.  My thanks to the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for its support for the book (and the French translation), and to FreeLab, the translators of the Polish edition, and the publisher, the social cooperative Faktoria.

In her brilliant new book, Mary Christina Wood, a noted environmental law scholar at the University of Oregon, Eugene, courageously sweeps aside the bland half-truths and evasions about environmental law.  In Nature’s Trust:  Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age (Cambridge University Press), Wood argues:  “That ancient membrane of law that supposedly functions as a system of community restraint [is] now tattered and pocked with holes.”  Our current regulatory system will never solve our problems.  She continues:

"A major source of administrative dysfunction arises from the vast discretion [environmental] agencies enjoy – and the way they abuse it to serve private, corporate and bureaucratic interests.  As long as the decision-making frame presumes political discretion to allow damage, it matters little what new laws emerge, for they will develop the same bureaucratic sinkholes that consumed the 1970s laws.  Only a transformational approach can address sources of legal decay."

Wood’s mission in Nature’s Trust is to propose a new legal framework to define and carry out government’s ecological obligations.  For Wood, a huge opportunity awaits in reinvigorating the public trust doctrine, a legal principle that goes back millennia.  She explains how the doctrine could and should guide a dramatically new/old approach to protecting land, water, air and wildlife. 

In 1970, Professor Joseph Sax inaugurated a new era of legal reforms based on the public trust doctrine with a famous law review article.  For a time, Sax’s essay sparked energetic litigation to protect and reclaim waters that belong to everyone.  The focus was especially on beachfronts, lakes and riverbanks, and on wildlife.  But as new environmental statutes were enacted, some courts and scholars began to balk and backtrack and hedge.  They complained that the public trust doctrine should take a backseat to environmental statutes.  Or that the doctrine should apply only to states.  Or that it applies only to water and wildlife, and not to other ecological domains.  And so on.

Max Haiven, a writer, teacher and organizer in Halifax, Canada, recently posted an essay on the website of ROAR magazine that is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Crisis of Imagination, Crises of Power:  Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons (Zed Books).  It’s a fascinating piece that dissects the formidable capacity of global capitalist systems to control our sense of the possible. 

It seems that Haiven has been thinking quite deeply about how the “financialization of culture”  for some time.  He writes:  “…the system is more invested than ever in preoccupying and enclosing our sense of self and of the future; our hopes, dreams and aspirations; and our capacity to imagine.”  A sense of futility preemptively neutralizes any threats to the system without the need to use visible force.  Modest incremental improvements within the existing system are the best that anyone can aspire to. 

“From this perspective,” writes Haiven, an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College or Art and Design, “radical social movements that seek to transform society can only be interpreted as vainglorious or pathologically ideological. It is also this fatalism that enables radicalisms to be co-opted and internalized within the system: if the system cannot actually be overcome, the only horizon of dissent is an inadvertent improvement of the system itself.  Radical demands for the re-imagining of value are tamed and made to offer piecemeal solutions to capitalist crises; attempts to live out anti-capitalist values are transmuted into commercialized subcultures; anti-racist or feminist movements are co-opted into opportunities for a select few to enter into the middle class.”

So what to do?  Haiven brilliantly explains how commoning can be effectively “jam” the usual cooptation strategies deployed by the Market/State:   

Coming Soon: Think Like a Commoner

My year got off to a zippy start when Ralph Nader named my new book – due out in February – as #1 in his list of “Ten Books to Provoke Conversation in the New Year.”  Thanks, Ralph!

Think Like a Commoner:  A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons is my attempt to introduce the commons to the lay reader and concerned citizen. I wanted to explain the commons in simple but not simplistic language while pointing toward the many deep and complicated aspects of the commons, and to the diverse points of entry to the subject.  My publisher is New Society Publishers, known for its environmental and activist-minded books.

Think Like a Commoner is my best effort to provide a succinct, lucid overview of the commons. In relatively short chapters, I discuss its history, academic scholarship and many cultural variations.  I explore the political and economic implications of the commons and dozens of activist fronts and working projects.  I also look at the international commons movement and provide a list of further reading and other resources. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s taken me fifteen years to write this book!  While Silent Theft, my first foray into commons research and scholarship, came out in 2002, I’ve had quite an odyssey of reading, debate, conference-going and reflection over the past decade.  I decided it was important to circle back on myself to try to make better sense of the commons, ten years later, and to try to communicate it more clearly.

Now it's on to the public outreach / marketing stage of the book.  For that, I'm grateful to climate change activist Bill McKibben for his supportive blurb:  “The Commons is among the most important and hopeful concepts of our time, and once you've read this book you'll understand why!” 

Writer’s Voice, a national radio show and podcast featuring authors, recently devoted an hour to talking with me about the commons. The chief focus was on my new book co-authored with Burns Weston, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, which Cambridge University Press published in January. 

Our book recovers from history many fragments of what we call “commons-based law” from such sources as Roman law, the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest, and public trust doctrine governing natural resources.  We also point to many modern-day analogues such as international treaties to manage Antarctica and space as commons. We wish to show that commons-based law is in fact a long and serious legal tradition – but one that has also been quite vulnerable, particularly over the past two centuries as market-oriented priorities have eclipsed the commons. 

Burns Weston and I argue that the right to a clean and healthy environment, and to access to nature for subsistence (as opposed to for profit-making market purposes), should be recognized as a human right.  The right to meet one’s everyday household needs – by responsibly managing forests, pasture, orchards and wild game as a commons – was recognized by the Charter of the Forest, adopted by King Henry III, the son of King John, in 1217.

This right was essentially a right to survive because commoners depended on the forest for food, fuel, economic security and other basic needs. Such precedents ought to inform our discussions today, when the rights of investors and markets in effect override any human right to survival (consider the many free trade treaties that override democratic sovereignty, ecological protections and local control).

In this age of marauding markets, it almost seems quaint to ask, “Who owns culture?”  We know the answer.  When push comes to shove, the owners of copyright, trademarks and patents own everything.  We may think that the music, images and stories of our culture belong to us, but as a matter of law, in the 165+ countries that have signed the Berne Convention, our designated role is....to buy (and not use someone else's "property.")   

A new book of essays complicates this picture.  Negotiating Culture:  Heritage, Ownership and Intellectual Property -- just published by the University of Massachusetts Press -- points out some of the distinct limits to “intellectual property’s” dominion.  The book is a series of essays by academics from various disciplines that explores how social practice and culture have their own moral legitimacy and social power -- enough to push back on claimed property rights. 

The book chronicles controversies over who should have legal rights of ownership and control over Native American remains, Green and Roman antiquities, works of art looted by the Nazis, among many other objects and resources.  We are asked to consider whether culture should be treated as property that can be bought and sold (and treated accordingly), or whether it must be considered inalienable, or not suitable for sale on the market, and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.  

These are the magic words:  It seems that the core issue in so many of these disputes is a matter of identity, dignity, respect and, of course, power.

Museums are increasingly at the epicenter of cultural ownership issues these days.  The 2005 trial in Italy of Marion True, the former curator of classical art at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a beautiful case study of how social norms about the ownership of ancient antiquities have dramatically shifted.  Prior to that trial, museums often bought or accepted donated antiquities without too much thought about the provenance of the work.  After all, antiquities don’t usually come with title deeds or receipts, and it was an open secret that many of them were dug up by looters and spirited out of the country into the hands of profit-minded dealers.

When I pump gas in my car these days, there is a video screen on the pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.  It is so loud and obnoxious that it takes great restraint to not smash the damn screen with my car keys.  (For the record, the gas station is a Cumberland Farms convenience store.)

Thanks to architecture professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, I now have a vocabulary for talking about such vandalism against our shared mental environment.  It is a desecration of the ambient commons.  The ambient commons consists of all of those things in our built environment, especially in cities, that we take for granted as part of the landscape:  architectural design, urban spaces, designs that guide and inform our travels, amenities for social conviviality.  Professor McCullough explores these themes in his fascinating new book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press).

Not many peole have rigorously thought about how new information technologies are changing the ambient commons of cities.  Nowadays media feeds are everywhere -- on building facades, billboards, hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators and even gas pumps.  About three in five of us carry around smartphones, which have radically changed how we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps are a new form of annotated “wayfinding” that makes signage and tourist guidebooks less necessary.  The Internet of Things – sensor-readable RFID tags on objects – make the cityscape more “digitally legible” in ways that previously required architectural design. 

It has reached such a state that many retailers now use sensors on our smartphones to track our movements, behavior and moods during the course of browsing stores.  Retailers want to assemble a database of in-store customer behavior (just as they collect data during our website visits) so that they can adjust product displays, signage and marketing in ways that maximize sales.  This was described by a recent New York Times article and accompanying video, “Attention, Shoppers:  Store is Tracking Your Cell."   

The explosive growth in the “number, formats and contexts of situated images” in the city means that we now experience a cityscape in different ways.  We identify our locations, find information, connect with each other and experience life in different ways.  The embedded design elements of the ambient commons affect how we think, behave and orient ourselves to the world. 

“We move around with and among displays,” writes McCullough notes.  “Global rectangles have become part of the [urban] scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere.  Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented.  Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.”

Six months after the print edition was published by our good friends at Levellers Press, I’m happy to report that the anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available online at http://www.wealthofthecommons.org

A hearty thanks once again to the commons activists, academics and project leaders from more than 25 countries who contributed the 73 essays in the book.  You can review the list of contributors and their essays here.  

The volume describes the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.  My colleague Silke Helfrich edited the German edition with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which was published in Germany in April 2012.  Silke and I then edited a separate English edition published by Levellers last November. 

The five sections of the book give a good idea of its themes:  “The Commons as a New Paradigm”; “Capitalism, Enclosure and Resistance”; “Commoning – A Social Innovation for Our Times”; “Knowledge Commons for Social Change”; and “Envisioning a Commons-Based Policy and Production Framework.” 

The book chronicles many ongoing struggles against the private commoditization of shared resources – while documenting the immense generative power of the commons.  It explains how millions of commoners are defending their forests and fisheries, reinventing local food systems, organizing productive online communities, reclaiming public spaces, improving environmental stewardship and re-imagining the very meaning of “progress” and governance.   

We’re hoping that the online access to the book will help increase its visibility and readership – along with sales of the printed version.  I invite you to spread the word about book in your spheres of influence. 

It’s been two years since my dear friend and commons activist Jonathan Rowe went to the gym, came down with an illness and unexpectedly passed away at age 65.  Jon was one of the cofounders, in 2002, of the Tomales Bay Institute, later renamed On the Commons.  Over the course of the next ten years I learned a great deal about the commons from my many conversations with Jon and from his unfailingly beautiful essays and blog posts.  It is a bittersweet experience to re-encounter Jon’s work in all its understated glory in a new book just published. 

Our Common Wealth:  The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work (Berrett-Koehler) consists of 22 short pieces that Jon wrote for various magazines and Onthecommons.org.  The book offers a series of meditations on various aspects of the commons, markets, property and the human condition.  Each of them is brisk, passionate and lucid. 

If you’re not familiar with Jon, you may want to sample his writings at the website established in his memory after his death, www.jonathanrowe.org. You should also read the book, which will stand as an elegant, sensitive introduction to the commons for years to come. 

I’m grateful to my commons colleague and friend Peter Barnes for foraging through Jon’s eclectic and diverse writings to edit this volume.  Peter, who worked with Jon and me, is the originator of the cap-and-dividend / Sky Trust proposal for curbing climate emissions.  (See his books, Who Owns the Sky? and Capitalism 3.0.)  Peter wrote the book’s introduction, and Bill McKibben and I have small cameos as writers of the book’s foreword and afterword, respectively.

While many publishers might be wary of bringing out what might be seen as a “tribute book,” Jon’s essays shine forth as underappreciated gems that will have a timeless appeal.  He was that good a writer. 

What impressed me about Jon was how he drew upon a rich well of political activism, Washington contacts and top-flight journalists while living a fairly simple life in the rural village of Point Reyes Station, California.  It gave him time to think and reflect on contemporary political culture, and it made his commentary that much more penetrating and deep.  For a fuller account of Jon’s life and career, you may want to read the appreciation that I wrote two years ago, shortly after his death. 

After three years of hard work, I am pleased to announce that my new book – co-authored with Professor Burns Weston of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa College of Law – has just been published.  Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons was recently released by Cambridge University Press.  Here is a short summary of the book:

The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree: we have reached a point in history where we are in grave danger of destroying Earth's life-sustaining capacity.  But our attempts to protect natural ecosystems are increasingly ineffective because our very conception of the problem is limited; we treat “the environment” as its own separate realm, taking for granted prevailing but outmoded conceptions of economics, national sovereignty, and international law.  Green Governance is a direct response to the mounting calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans relate to the natural environment.  It opens the door to a new set of solutions by proposing a compelling new synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance.  Going beyond speculative abstractions, the book proposes a new architecture of environmental law and public policy that is as practical as it is theoretically sound.

The book has a number of significant endorsements.  At the risk of immodesty, here are a few of the blurbs for Green Governance:

James Gustave Speth, Former Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Professor of Law, Vermont Law School:

“When a vital body of existing policy and law has run its course, the need for reinvention becomes urgent. So it is with environmental law and policy. It is therefore exiting that two enormously well-informed and creative thinkers, Burns Weston and David Bollier, have joined forces to produce this breakthrough in environmental governance. Their book is a landmark in our thinking about rights-based environmentalism and the law of the commons and how these fields can combine in a powerful synthesis. We must take these ideas very seriously indeed. Highly recommended.”

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